Parts of my code from my internship. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Wang)
Valencia High School

Bytes of Tech: Team of young women at UCI harness the power of coding to create an accessible community

Bytes of Tech is a column by Vivian Wang that highlights the role of technology in the lives of Generation Z youths and the ways that youths can bridge the gender gap in STEM. In this week’s article, Wang shares the journey of young women at the University of California, Irvine who use the power of computer science to help the visually-impaired community.

The typically-perceived image of a researcher in a university lab manifests in an image of a professional male in a white lab coat who is working with explosive Erlenmeyer flasks in a dark basement at 2 a.m. in the morning. This common perception does not fall true at the University of California, Irvine one of the research and development labs.

At UCI’s INclusive Studio for Innovation and Education lab, a team of undergraduates and Ph.D. students are all working collaboratively to develop wearable technology for individuals with vision impairments to use as they navigate large public places such as airports or malls.

Background on INsite Lab at the University of California, Irvine

INsite lab at UCI consists of the research side and the development side. While the research aspect focuses more on user beta testing and interviewing potential users of the wearable, the development side of INsite specializes more in the creation of the smartwatch technology to make the vision of this project become a reality.

Consisting of eight UCI computer science women, the development team at UCI’s INsite lab is an all-female team working closely with the other undergraduate and Ph.D. students at UCI to successfully code an extension to a voice assistant.

This summer, I was invited to join the INsite development team to help with the coding of the voice assistant extension to accompany the smartwatch that will be released to individuals in the visually-impaired community. The group dynamics of the development team are insurmountable.

Collaborating in an All-Female Environment

During my summer internship at UCI’s INsite lab, I never felt imposter syndrome or the fear of sharing my ideas whenever we had team meetings. Being surrounded by females who all strive towards a common goal of using technology for social good ensured that we fostered a supportive rather than competitive environment.

In my previous experiences at STEM summer programs, many of these programs were co-ed. The men of the room dominated the brainstorming sessions and young women including myself found ourselves naturally gravitating towards the outer ring of the conversation.

Through this summer internship at UCI, I realized that the group dynamics of any project are just as paramount to the project itself. While the development team and I were able to code collaboratively, we also knew that it was equally important to know more about one another’s personal lives and to check-in on one another in regard to mental health and life updates.

My Overall Takeaways & Growth from the Internship

Working with undergraduate and Ph.D. students as the only high school student in the lab, I learned how to communicate professionally with my colleagues and grasped a wide array of technical skills that I would not be able to learn in a typical high school classroom setting.

During this summer internship at INsite, I learned how to use the Mycroft voice assistant, how to code a login functionality with Amazon software development kits, and how to code in Kotlin, Android’s programming language for Android apps. Additionally, I discovered the ins and outs of virtual machines (and how to be patient with technology and errors in my code). Although I worked primarily with the development team at INsite, I finished the internship with a few takeaways from the research team.

Although I did not work as closely with the research team, I learned that the research team focused heavily on interviewing individuals of the visually-impaired community and they discovered small features of the watch that we would not have caught if we did not interview these potential users. For instance, one interviewee shared that they would not want to have the smartwatch that we create to wrap around their luggage or bag, especially since it would not be as practical when needing to access the watch quickly. These insights that the INsite team received were not concepts that we could research on Google.

Ultimately, the development and launch of our smartwatch will revolutionize the way that we define accessibility in technology. Before this summer internship, the idea of accessibility in technology had not crossed my mind; I had always imagined computer science as inventing the next Google or the next Snapchat face filter but I had not yet considered the importance of accessible technology.

Accessibility in technology has been heavily overlooked in the ever-changing world of technology but it’s imperative that we look toward creating an inclusive environment with the power of technology.